I grew up in Techwood, a housing project of inner-city Atlanta. Until it was razed in preparation for the ’96 Summer Olympics, Techwood was widely regarded as one of the most dangerous projects of any city in the country. Bodies in gutters and on gurneys, overdoses, gang violence, drive-bys. I saw it all. I still do, from time to time. So I escaped. Left it all behind. And I didn’t need a Wardrobe or a Tardis or a tricked-out DeLorean. All I had to do was press the ‘walk’ button, wait for the light to change, and walk across the street. It was just that easy. And when I stepped on the far sidewalk, as if by magic, the world changed from the pitted, blood-stained sidewalks of Techwood to the manicured lawns of Georgia Tech. That was my Narnia, my middle-Earth, my galaxy far far away. Use whatever metaphors and similes you can find. But the campus of Georgia Tech was as magical and mystical as any of those fantasy lands, except that this one was real. And it was mine.
I believe that saved me, in the end. On the Tech campus, I didn’t have to be a ghetto rat, a “reject from the projects.” Instead, I got to be what I had always wanted to be: safe. I watched movies in the student center. Played arcade games with scrubbed quarters, and spent hours in the library. I used to sleep in the stacks, where it was warm and quiet. I would sit outside of lectures in the Spring and listen through the open windows. I didn’t understand anything. I just liked to pretend I was there, in class, being spoken to with big, meaningless words that I was smart enough to understand anyway. “I want to go to college,” I would say. But what I meant was, I want to live in that world. Not this world.
Only years later did I come to understand that there was a lot more to crossing that street than simply waiting for the walk signal and strolling over to the other side. Many factors – race, gender, socioeconomic status – determined who could cross and who could not, most of them working silently and systemically to limit opportunities for some and not others.
As a professor, I remained at Salem State University the whole of my professional career because I believed in the essential value of public education. I felt a deep kinship with my first-generation students, my students of low means, my strugglers and my high-scorers. They said to me, “I want to graduate college,” and what I heard was an echo of my own desire for a better life. I heard them asking for help crossing that same wide street. And I did help. As much as I could.
My students’ limits, though, were not intellectual. Most of my students were fine thinkers, insightful and creative. But they were not taught how to study. Or how to take notes. They lacked breadth and depth in both their knowledge and curiosity. Many of them were dealing with food insecurity, disruptive homes, and poverty. Their intellectual talents, and the transformative force of an education, were attenuated by a depressing litany of broken promises and failed social policy. They were disadvantaged through no fault of their own. And they were the lucky ones.
They were the lucky ones. This is the realization that pushes me now to law school. The students in my classes made it to college; they have a chance. A small one maybe, but real. So what about the unlucky ones? The ones who didn’t make it, who won’t be learning Plato and Aristotle? It is important to me that I help these not-yet students, as well. The absent ones in the empty seats.
In my view, providing that help requires addressing the factors that keep so many people from being able to go to college in the first place, whether through systemic inequality, racism, poverty, or simple cruelty. As a professor, I spent my professional life fighting against these barriers by teaching my students how to think critically about the world around them. Law is for me an extension of that same fight, only now with different tools and a degree that will allow me to help a wider range of those in need.
Michael Deere is a first-year student and new Impact blogger. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.